Intellect vs Will

There was one aspect of the movie that was the subject of last week’s post, Kurosawa’s Sanjuro, that I think it is useful to spend more time going over and that is the relationship between Intellect and Will. Kurosawa places this distinction at the heart of the plot of Sanjuro since the group of naïve young aristocrats who are on the verge of getting themselves killed at the start of the movie are exercising their Intellect but not their Will. Meanwhile, the wily Samurai who will save them is operating from Will. What Kurosawa makes clear time and again throughout the movie is that Will trumps Intellect in “the real world”.

Will (the samurai) vs Intellect (the aristocrats)

In my archetypal table, I assign Intellect to the Orphan phase of life and Will to the Adult phase as follows:-

PhysicalExotericEsoteric
ChildPre-pubertyN/AImagination
OrphanPubertyStudent, apprenticeIntellect
AdultMaturityEconomic, political, sexual maturityWill
ElderOld Age (menopause)Mentor, Elder, (Retired)Soul

The young aristocrats are Orphans because they have no official responsibilities in the clan. That is why they must petition the clan leader to get something done. They have correctly used their Intellect to figure out that there is corruption going on. What they don’t realise is that knowing something to be true is a very different thing from proving it and a different thing again from ensuring justice gets served.

Even in the modern world with our egalitarian ethic and the nominally equal access that everybody has to the courts, there is incredible naivete around how the justice system works. The justice system does not guarantee justice. It only guarantees the chance at justice. The pursuit of justice belongs more to the realm Will than to the Intellect. Going through a court case takes time, energy and especially money. Knowing something is true intellectually is a different thing to standing in court and asserting that truth, especially since others will stand and assert that you are wrong. In short, the pursuit of justice rests far more on Will than Intellect. The young aristocrats begin the movie with the mindset that many naïve people still have in our time that just because they are right means that justice will be served.

But the naivete of the aristocrats goes deeper than that. The Intellect, when used in the absence of other faculties, operates much like a modern computer and, just like modern computers, the principle of Garbage In, Garbage Out holds. People operating purely by Intellect are easily deceived. All you have to do is control the input they are operating from and then you control the output, the conclusions that they will draw.

Throughout Kurosawa’s movie, various traps and deceptions are laid by the bad guys, the superintendent and his accomplices. Their goal is to lure their opponents into situations where they can either frame them for made up crimes or just kill them outright. The naïve aristocrats fall for the bait every single time and it is only because they have samurai to help them that they escape.

What does the samurai have that they do not? We could sum it up in a word whose modern meaning has taken on a negative connotation, cunning. In Old English, the word cunning used to mean simply “to know”. It was one of a pair of words that most other European languages have but which has disappeared in modern English. In modern German, there is still the difference between kennen and wissen. Cunning comes from the same root word as German kennen.

Although the semantic difference is not clean, the difference between wissen and kennen is that between abstract knowledge and practical knowledge. What I am calling Intellect is about abstract knowledge and therefore maps to German wissen. Kennen, and English cunning, are about practical knowledge. Because practical knowledge comes from lived experience, and because lived experience is based more on Will than on Intellect, cunning is the kind of knowledge that comes from Will-fully acting in the world.

Part of Will-fully acting in the world is coming to understand that the world does not run on Intellect and its abstractions. Many a philosopher throughout history has come to the conclusion that the world should run on Intellect and the way to do that is precisely to remove the element of Will from the equation. It’s a nice idea, but, as the movie Sanjuro shows, it can get you killed, especially in the domain of politics. To operate in the real world, you need cunning. That is what the naïve aristocrats completely lack.

But, the distinction between Will and Intellect, cunning and knowing, holds even outside of political gamesmanship.

The consequences of any enterprise of reasonable complexity cannot be calculated in advance. To refuse to act until you have attempted to calculate all possible effects leads to analysis paralysis. This is before we even get into the various paradoxes of Intellect which call into question the possibility that Intellect can generate valid outputs in the first place.

The question of determinism has been around for millennia, but the late 19th century saw a particularly strong form of determinism take shape fuelled by the enthusiasm surrounding the progress of science. It was genuinely believed by certain thinkers and scientists that the Intellect would soon solve all problems and we could know pretty much everything there was to know. We could then predict the outcome of any action with complete certainly. Put into our terminology, it was the belief in the infinite power of the Intellect. Of course, it fell apart in multiple ways including from within the scientific paradigm itself.

We can frame the problem in the terms of system theory by simply saying that action in the real world requires dealing with irreducible complexity and therefore the results cannot be calculated in advance. To act knowing that the consequences cannot be known in advance requires the use of Will. It follows that action according to Will requires an understanding of the limits of Intellect.

The supreme activity of man according to Aristotle

But it’s also true that orientation to the world based on Will is different from orientation based on Intellect. The Greek philosophers like Aristotle were at least consistent since they explicitly eschewed worldly action. Sitting on a mountain and using their Intellect was what they considered to be the highest attainment for a human being. It was how we could get closest to God. Their god was a god of Intellect and not of Will.

Part of the reason why Kurosawa’s Sanjuro is such a great movie is because it makes clear what is the difference between acting in the world according to Intellect and according to Will. The samurai and the bad guys are acting according to Will. The naïve young aristocrats are acting according to Intellect. What does this mean in practice?

Well, one of the main differences is that both the samurai and his opponents are inherently distrustful of information. More precisely, they judge information only once they know its source. There’s a great scene towards the end of the movie where Sanjuro is attempting to lure the troops of the superintendent to a specific location. When the fake news is reported to the superintendent, his first question is “who is this samurai?” He doesn’t take the information on face value. He wants to know who is providing it. He wants to know the intention, the Will, behind the information.

By contrast, time and again, the naïve aristocrats take whatever they hear at face value as if it’s the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. They have no concept of Will and therefore no concept of deception. The idea of deception might sound obvious to those of us who live in the real world where lies are commonplace, but for cloistered aristocrats who live in ivory towers, it can be a real shock.

It was also a central problem in the philosophy of Descartes. Descartes introduces it via the concept of the evil demon which is essentially a question of how the Intellect can know it’s not being deceived. Descartes wanted to create a system where the Intellect could be sovereign and not have to rely on the other faculties.

Descartes and the evil demon

Some philosophers and theologians have gotten around the problem of the potential corruption of the Intellect by stating that the world we live in is inherently corrupt and we should not expect to find truth here at all. Maybe they’re right. But there is another strand of thought in modern Western culture which has explored the idea that maybe Will is more fundamental than Intellect (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and others).

In his own way, Kurosawa also explores this idea in the attitude that the aristocrats have towards the samurai. There’s a scene where one of them calls the samurai a “monster”. Another says that he can’t be trusted. This happens quite late in the movie after the samurai has saved their lives several times. How could the aristocrats fail to trust a man who has saved their lives repeatedly?

The reason is because they do not understand him and, for the aristocrats, Intellect is everything. They can only trust what they understand. Compare this to ancient Greece and Rome. Before any major decision, the Greeks and Romans would consult various oracles. The oracles were not there to predict the outcome of a course of action. Rather, they were there to ascertain the Will of the gods. The Greeks and Romans would consult whichever god was seen to have authority over whatever it is they were doing, be it planting a crop or going to war.

Whatever else you want to say about this, one of the effects of such a practice is to take decision making out of the hands of Intellect and place it in the domain of Will. Reading oracles is an inherently irrational process. It meant that the decision could not be judged by Intellect.

Why would you want a decision not to be judged by Intellect? Because of our aforementioned point: the consequences of any enterprise of complexity cannot be known in advance. But that doesn’t stop the Intellect from judging those consequences after the fact. One of the ways this manifests is in the phenomenon of preachers thundering away in pulpits about how everything that goes wrong in the world is evidence that God is punishing us. We see the exact same thing in the modern world where various ideologues will judge actions after the fact with the implication that if we only followed their ideology none of it would have happened.

All this is born out of the same error of not understanding the limits to Intellect. Does the preacher or ideologue have a broadband connection directly to the central server of heaven? Do they know (Intellectually) what God knows? If so, why didn’t they enlighten us all before the action rather than wait for the consequences to manifest? The reason is because they couldn’t have known in advance. All they can do is judge after the fact. But this is an invalid use of Intellect and the result is fake knowledge. Of course, this problem is not limited to preachers and ideologues. We all have a tendency to fall into this trap through the misuse of Intellect.

One could argue that the ancients took the idea of Will too far and ended up in the realm of fatalism where life was just a long process of being thrown this way and that by the Will of the gods and all you could do was accept it. This explains the extreme stagnation that set in during the Roman Empire where scarcely any attempt was made to change things for the better. Why bother when it was just the Will of the gods? The same was true for Egypt and, seemingly, for most civilisations of that era.

Kurosawa’s movie shows us a more mundane version of the same dynamic. It is about how those who operate according to Intellect alone (the aristocrats) misjudge those who operate according to Will (the samurai).

But the reverse is also true. The samurai must learn how to deal with the aristocrats. He is used to operating by Will alone and not having to worry about making his Will comprehensible by others. That’s part of the reason the aristocrats don’t trust him. He doesn’t explain his strategy to them in terms they can understand. Eventually, at the end of the film, he figures it out. How does he solve the problem? By giving them explicit, binary instructions. When this, do that. Otherwise, do nothing. Finally, they are able to follow along and his plan comes to fruition.

The moral of the story is that those who would lead must translate their Will into terms their followers, using Intellect, can understand. Here we have the origins of bureaucracy. A bureaucracy is an organisational structure that runs on rules like a machine. Since the Intellect is good at comprehending rules, a bureaucracy is the natural place for people like the aristocrats in Sanjuro.

It is noteworthy in this respect that bureaucracy was created in Asia while the ancient Greeks and Romans had almost no bureaucracy until very late in the Roman Empire, and even then only a minimal one. The ancients had solved the same problem in a different way. Consulting the oracle was a way to take the matter completely out of the hands of Intellect and therefore get alignment based on a shared agreement to the “Will of the gods”.

In our times, we see both of these “solutions” present. On the one hand, we have an enormous bureaucracy. But it’s one of the ironies of our time that “science” has largely come to take the place of the oracles used by the ancients. Since the average person assumes in advance that they cannot understand science, Intellect is removed from the equation. The pronouncements of modern science have thus become equivalent to the pronouncements of the ancient oracles and, as the corona debacle showed, they are often just as irrational.

Welcome to the Machine

Last year I happened to catch the interview which Tucker Carlson did on Twitter with Hunter Biden’s “business partner”, Devon Archer. The interview didn’t reveal any great surprises from my point of view. I think Archer mentioned the word “strategic” about a thousand times. Much like the joke about how any scholarly discipline that has the word “science” in the title isn’t a real science, we could make a similar joke about how job titles with “strategy” in them have nothing to do with the subject. A “strategic adviser” is a person who facilitates deals in the murky domain at the intersection between government, capital and the private sector. That’s why Archer was “in business” with Hunter Biden.

What I did find surprising about the interview was Tucker Carlson’s attitude to Devon Archer. After insinuating and even outright stating that the business with Hunter Biden was corrupt since it was predicated on insider dealings with a government official, Carlson nevertheless praised Archer. I think at one point he even said something like “well done, that’s good business”. In Tucker Carlson’s world, Devon Archer is a “good businessman” and Joe Biden a “corrupt politician”. It’s a bit like congratulating the drug dealer while throwing the drug user in jail.

How could Tucker Carlson on the one hand claim to be super concerned about government corruption while on the other hand have a nice friendly interview with a man whose job it was to facilitate that corruption? And how could Devon Archer willingly confess to doing that job and sit there with a big smile on his face as though he’d done nothing wrong?

The reason relates back to the point I made in last week’s about the three metaphysical pillars of the modern West: democracy, capitalism and science. The case of Devon Archer and the Biden family is the perfect illustration of how capitalism corrupts democracy. But capitalism can’t be called into question since it’s an article of faith. That’s why Carlson can praise Archer as a businessman while criticising Joe Biden as a public official.

The truth, of course, is that capitalism is subverting democracy and not just in the case of the Biden family. Capitalism is also subverting science as we saw during the corona debacle. That’s what happens when you encourage people like Devon Archer to chase money to the exclusion of anything else. What the USA and the rest of the West desperately needs to reclaim both democracy and science from the clutches of money but the right side of politics has framed the issue such that any criticism of capitalism makes you a “communist”.

We should remember that both capitalism and communism are products of the Western mind and they have a lot in common. In order to see these commonalities, we need a point of comparison and, as usual, the Roman Empire provides the ideal example since in this, as in most things, it is opposite of the modern West.

Some historians have trawled through Roman history trying to find evidence that the Romans must have had something resembling our capitalism, as if all civilisation must somehow be based on the exact same values as the modern West. The truth is there is no evidence for capitalism in ancient Rome and quite lot of evidence against it. But we can go a step further and get closer to the core of the issue by making the broader point which is the one that the historian Spengler also made: the Romans had almost nothing that we would give the general label of organisation.

This doesn’t mean the Romans were disorganised. Clearly, they had a disciplined military, a legal code, a governance structure, a justice system and other things required for a peaceful and orderly society. What they didn’t have were bureaucracies, corporations, armies of lawyers or enormous public services. And they sure as hell didn’t have “strategic advisers”, “diversity officers” and human resource managers.

It’s incredible to think that, in the golden age of the Roman Empire, the Caesars ruled with almost no bureaucracy at all. The basis for Rome’s power was the army. But this was more than just an accidental occurrence. The army represented the basic ethic of Rome which we can sum up in the phrase might is right. Roman aristocrats earned their honour and status through public service and the highest form of public service was military service. They would have considered it deeply dishonourable to get involved in business dealings.

Of course, business dealings did happen in ancient Rome and many of the aristocracy became incredibly rich as a result. But they were not actively involved in business. They just accrued the money which they often spent on public works. This is another reason that Rome had a tiny government. The tax take for most of Roman history was a paltry 1% and when the government is only taking 1% in tax, it can’t afford to hire bureaucrats or public servants.

That was one reason why the government and bureaucracy was so small. Another was the simple and informal nature of Roman law. Rome never had general public education. As a result, most Romans were illiterate. Accordingly, there was no possibility of reading or signing complicated contracts. The law reflected this by allowing most arrangements to be made verbally. A classic example is marriage. A Roman man and woman could enter into marriage simply by announcing their intention to do so and then moving in together. They could break up the marriage just as easily. No lawyers were required. No government bureaucrats needed to be notified.

Related to the relative simplicity of their legal system is the fact that the Romans had no police force. What force did exist was very similar to the form taken in early modern Europe where there was a “watch” made up of ordinary citizens. In general, Roman citizens were expected to enforce the law themselves. This was literally true in the early days of the republic. If somebody committed a crime against you, you had to arrest them and drag them before the courts yourself. If the judge found in your favour and sentenced the other party to some kind of corporal punishment, you were the one who carried out the punishment.

Of course, why would you bother to go through the courts when you could just mete out the punishment directly and that’s what often happened. By our standards, Rome was a relatively lawless society. But, again, the ethic was might is right. That was true at an everyday level and it was true at the highest levels of government. The Roman system required and rewarded strongmen. That’s just how they operated, as did most societies of that era.

In summary, outside of the army, the Romans had essentially no large organisations at all. They had no corporations, bureaucracies, banks, police forces, unions, chambers of commerce, NGOs, law firms, legal societies, football clubs, political parties, United Nations, World Banks, World Health Organisations or International Monetary Funds.

Romans looked down their noses at trade, banking and commerce. The reason the Romans did not pursue organisation in these spheres was not because they didn’t have the intelligence or capability but because they did not value such things. Accordingly, the institutions which existed were rudimentary. When emergencies happened, the Romans solved the problem not through organisation but through force.

Incidentally, this was also true in the early days of modern Europe. Kings needed bankers to fund wars. Once the war was over, the kings would often refuse to pay their debts and the banker was left to foot the bill. If he had a problem with it, he could take it up with the king’s army. That was also how Rome worked. Might was right.

We can see, therefore, that one of the main differences between our society and the Romans is the scale of our organisations. How did we get so good at organisation?

There is, of course, no single answer to that question but we can state for sure that trade and commerce played a very important role and this where capitalism comes into the picture.

The British East India Company is arguably the proto-corporation of the modern world. For many years it was the largest corporation in the world and may even have been the largest in history (it’s probable that the Chinese or Indians had something larger through sheer population size). In any case, the British East India Company was orders of magnitude larger than any Roman organisation.

How did the British East India Company come about? Well, Francis Drake is sometimes called an “explorer” or a “privateer”. We could more accurately call him a pirate since the original purpose of the voyage which made him famous was to sail to South America and steal gold from the Spanish. He achieved that aim and then, while sailing back to England, landed in what is now Indonesia. He traded some of the gold he had stolen from the Spanish for spices, apparently not realising their enormous value in Europe at that time. When he got back to England, he was a hero. More importantly, those who had invested in his voyage became fabulously wealthy. Thereafter, other “privateers” decided to try their luck on the open seas and the rest, as they say, is history.

There’s much that could be said about this story but notice one crucial aspect: all of this activity was not instigated by the crown or the state but by private citizens. The East India Company had what we would now call a CEO, it had a board of directors, it went through all the legal hoops required for its creation. Already by the year 1600, most of the organisational and legal pre-requisites that we recognise as “trade and commerce” were already in effect in Britain. The reason we are all so familiar with them is because it was that “trade and commerce” which would become the basis for the British Empire. It took over the world quite literally.

By the time of the creation of the United State of America, trade and commerce had become more than a way to get rich by stealing Spanish gold. It had become an article of faith. In Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, arguably the founding document of the USA, we find the idea of trade and commerce as a way to gain freedom from the “tyranny” of kings such of King George III.

It’s worth noting again that all this is the inversion of the Roman paradigm. The Romans would never have dreamed of elevating trade and commerce above the Caesar, but the British and the Americans did. This is why capitalism really is an article of faith for Americans and has been from the beginning of that nation.

There’s another way in which the paradigm of the British and American empires is different from Rome. The Romans led with military might. Trade was a secondary benefit. The British and Americans have led with trade with military power reserved for situations that threatened trade (of course, military power has also been used for other reasons too).

Some people on the right of politics in the US have criticised the recent bombings of Houthi targets in Yemen. This reveals a surprising naivete about how the world works. The US and British are bombing the Houthis because the Houthis had managed to shut down shipping in the Red Sea thereby causing major disruption to transportation networks. That is not a new policy. It’s quite literally as old as America itself.

The conflict with the Houthis is an almost exact replica of the Barbary Wars fought at the beginning of the 19th century under the presidency of none other than Thomas Jefferson. What was at stake then, as now, is the freedom of navigation required to enable trade. America and Britain have always been prepared to go to war when trade and commerce were threatened. All of the shenanigans in the Middle East in the 20th century have been predicated on maintaining the most important trade of all; petrolem.

The rise of trade and commerce has, from the beginning, been accompanied by the enormous growth in the law, especially commercial law. In modern America, being involved in public life at all let alone in business requires a team of lawyers working round the clock to manage your affairs. Law is what enables our enormous organisations to be created. Thus, we can say that law is also a cornerstone of the modern Western paradigm.

As international trade became a huge boon for Britain, it incorporated mercantile law into its common law. As Lord Mansfield put it at the time – “Mercantile law is not the law of a particular country but the law of all nations”. It’s fair to say that Lord Mansfield did not ask other nations whether they agreed with this statement. It’s also fair to say that many nations, from the Barbary states of the 19th century through to the Houthis today, did not and do not agree with this statement. Nevertheless, the success of Britain and America has meant that other nations have had to abide by mercantile law whether they wanted to or not and so mercantile law has ended up becoming international.

It is these mercantile laws that form the basis for the incredible complexity of the modern global economy. When we enter into a contract, we know that it will be enforced and we can rely on the outcome being delivered. How many different contracts must exist in order for an iPhone to be created? Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of independently organised contracts have to be signed that coordinate the producers of minerals, plastics and electronic components with transportation companies, intermediaries and retailers from around the globe.  It’s a stunningly complex system that runs on laws.

Laws are the great strength of the system. But, increasingly, the costs of the system are outweighing the benefits and that is, I believe, what is behind the religious crisis that is affecting us today. We are the victims of our own success.

Consider this. The word “contract” comes from the Latin contractus which originally had the meaning of “to draw in, to shrink”. A business contract is a metaphorical extension of the original meaning. This makes some sense when you consider that to enter a contract is to limit yourself by binding yourself into an agreement with somebody else. The more contracts you enter into, the more you are binding yourself and reducing your ability to do other things. The Roman and Greek aristocrats’ distaste for trade and commerce was precisely because they saw it as a form of slavery; of being bound.

In the modern West, we have come to think that it’s the other way around since the contacts we enter into as consumers result in some benefit to us. But everything in life has diminishing returns. There probably was a time where the benefits of signing a contract outweighed the cost. That is clearly no longer true. The average person now enters into a huge number of contracts but, increasingly, they must go into debt in order to so. For the average person over the last 30 or so years, contracts have become little more than a chain around their neck; a form of debt bondage. That’s one huge problem that we face right now.

There’s a second and related problem. The enormous complexity of our society is facilitated through laws, rules and contracts. Increasingly, it is corporations and bureaucracies who control and operate those rules in a way that is not visible to the general public.

Consider the corona debacle. At the beginning of corona, I received pamphlet in my mailbox. The pamphlet was printed on the letterhead of my local council (local government organisation in Australia). It contained information about a supposedly new disease called “covid” whose symptoms were indistinguishable from the common cold/flu. In the fine print at the bottom of the page was stated that the information had been provided by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

What chain of command had to exist in order for that pamphlet to get delivered to my house? There is the Australian postal service which delivers the mail. There is an administration assistant, a graphic designer, and whoever else is employed by my local council to produce pamphlets. There is a printing facility to print them. The council gets its instructions from the state public health bureaucracy who gets its instructions from the national health bureaucracy who get their instructions from the bureaucrats at the WHO.

All of this chain of command exists because the Australian government is a signatory to a contract with the WHO. That contract requires the Australian government to do things when the WHO tells them to. In order to do those things, the Australian government funds the bureaucracies which operate according to strict rules.

The general public thinks that those bureaucracies are “intelligent”, that the people who work for them are highly educated and that their job it is to know things. In fact, the people who work in bureaucracies are only required to know that which enables them to follow the rules. That is what bureaucracies are good at. It might be the only thing bureaucracies are good at.

What has happened in the post war years with the massive expansion of bureaucracy both in the public service and in the private sector is to create a machine-like system that runs on rules and contracts, not on thinking. The corona debacle represented the complete absence of thinking. It’s exactly what you would expect if you put bureaucrats in charge of the world.

The corona debacle was made possible by a system where people mindlessly follow the rules. Why were so many people tested at hospitals early on, even people who had no symptoms of respiratory illness? Because that’s what the rules said had to happen. Hospitals were contractually required to carry out testing. Of course, hospitals were also incentivised by the fact that they received thousands of dollars per “covid patient”.

In one sense, the corona debacle was stunningly well-organised. Think of all the contracts, invoices, bookkeeping, information systems, laboratory reports etc that were needed to make it possible. But what corona proves is that we are no longer driving the machine. The machine is driving us.

Remember the double meaning of the word contract. It’s now the case that, with every new contract, we contract. Every new contract now contracts individual liberty and humanity in general. There can be no starker example of that than the corona lockdowns. Of course, the average person had no idea they had entered into the corona contract. Their governments did it on their behalf. An entire bureaucratic machine was built that nobody knew about.

Quite a number of people have recently had idea that modern society is possessed by Satan or some other force outside ourselves. That force is the machine. We created the machine and now the machine controls us. The great strength of the modern West has been organisation. But we now have too much organisation.

That’s how every great tragedy plays out. The hero’s greatest strengths become the flaws that lead to doom. Macbeth and the Othello were the great warriors who kept fighting when they should have sheathed their swords. King Lear was the ruler who could not retire. Romeo and Juliet were the passionate youths who could not control their emotions. Western civilisation has been the great organiser. But our solution to every problem is now one more rule, one more law, one more contract, one more bureaucracy, one more vaccine, one more technology. Every time we add one more of these, we bind ourselves tighter to the machine.

Solstice garden update and merry christmas

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need. 

Cicero

I thought I would end the year with a garden update given that it’s the summer solstice down here in the Southern Hemisphere. The garden has proven to be a sanctuary over the past two years in Melbourne where we’ve spent almost a whole year in lockdown. It was the one place I have been legally allowed to be outside without wearing the obligatory face nappy. It’s not lost on me that the drive to suburbia in the earlier part of the 20th century was in large part a drive to get away from the pollution and disease of the inner city. In some of the older inner suburbs of Melbourne, where property prices these days are astronomical, it’s still considered necessary to have your soil tested before growing food producing plants because those areas were previously set aside for heavy industry and heavy industry comes with toxic byproducts that decades later are still hanging around.

It was away from this pollution that the emerging middle class moved seeking the fresh air and clean soil of the suburbs. The possession of enough land to grow a garden was also considered a positive and prior to the wars everybody would have had a kitchen garden and a lemon tree as a bare minimum. In the postwar boom years the kitchen garden was replaced by a lawn. These days, there’s almost no lemon trees to be found and the lawns are a lot smaller. The new suburbs are full of properties that are lucky to be on 1/8th of an acre with a McMansion that stretches from one fence to the other. A garden of any interest is an impossibility on such a block. Although, this is no problem for most people for whom even mowing the lawn is too much of a chore. The reason people move to the suburbs now is not to avoid the inner suburbs but because they cannot afford the inner suburbs. The result is that the outer suburbs are more or less like the inner suburbs, at least as far as size of land goes.

When I made the move to the suburbs it was with an old fashioned garden in mind and so I deliberately chose a place in an older suburb where the new fashion of sub-division hadn’t yet taken hold. The house came with a lemon tree which, by a random meeting with the daughter of the ex-owner, I learned was planted in the 1950s by the original owners.

Old eureka lemon still producing beautiful fruit all year round

Sadly, the subdivision trend has now arrived in this area too. Just this year the property at the end of my street was split in two. It was once a quarter acre with a number of big fruit trees near the fence. I admit to helping myself to some of the peaches when walking past a few times (the owner didn’t seem interested in them). But the peach tree, perhaps planted around the same time as the lemon tree on my property, is no more. Along with the others, it was uprooted to make space for a huge house which takes up basically the entire block. Where I used to reach over to grab a peach you can now touch the side of the house, that’s how close it is to the fence. This kind of subdivision has been happening in Melbourne for two decades now. It’s all inflation, of course. The prices of properties continue to go up as the size of the land goes down. The median house price in Melbourne is now more than a million dollars and is completely untethered from underling reality much like the rest of our society these days. 

One of the valuable things about a backyard garden is that it provides close contact with reality. This year I’ve had to battle aphids who did some damage to one of the apple trees before I managed to get them under control. I had to learn the hard way that the grass I planted, even though it said “drought proof” on the box, is not suitable for the climate where I live so I’ll have to plant something different once summer is over. And I’ve also had the usual battles with pests, although this was the first year I remembered to net the almond trees before the cockatoos got to them so baring unforeseen circumstances I should get an almond harvest for the first time. 

I’ve also been in the process of changing the design of the garden from the original edible forest garden concept to an orchard-and-separate-veggie-garden setup. In the process I added 5 new fruit trees which brings the total to 25 along with 3 grape vines and a number of passionfruit vines. In addition, I added about 8 square metres of veggie gardens to bring the total to just under 20. I expanded my composting operations with the aid of the chicken manure from the coop and I have achieved another goal which is to grow all my vegetables from seed. Next year’s goal will be to grow all vegetables from seeds which I saved myself. Now that high summer is here, there’s nothing much to do except sit back and harvest the goodies.

I’ll be taking a break from blogging for the next few weeks to knuckle down and see if I can’t finish off my fourth novel “Once Upon a Time in Tittybong 2: Catch My Disease” (yes, the theme is heavily influenced by corona). I wish everybody a Merry Xmas and a happy new year. Doing either of these things now amounts to an act of rebellion so embrace your inner rebel and remember the Devouring Mother wants you miserable.

Here’s some updated garden pics.

A new addition to the front yard contains perennial veggies, herbs and flowering plants for the bees and butterflies
The giant peppercorn sucks up all the moisture from the soil, so these beds are all raised wicking beds which cuts back substantially on the amount of water needed for irrigation and turns this part of the garden into a productive area
The “orchard” has apple and pear trees to the right, newly planted olive and mandarin in the middle and lemon and macadamia to the left
I introduced Diogena, the cynic chicken, in an earlier post. Here she decides that the dry, warm, secure environment of the chicken coop is not to her liking and has decided to start roosting on, of all places, the pipe that leads from the gutter to the rainwater tank.
Like a true cynic, getting ready to sleep under the stars

The Diogenes Chicken

Over the past year I have inadvertently become something of an amateur ornithologist. When the corona business arrived, I was on a break from paid employment while I worked on my second and third novel. That break ended up lasting a lot longer than I thought and also included the writing of my book on the corona event. Nowadays, I’m back in a paid job but am working from home. I live about half a kilometre from the Werribee River with a major bird wetlands only about ten kilometres from my house so the area is rich in bird species. As my work desk overlooks my backyard, I get to watch as they come and go. Birds seen in my area on a normal day include, in rough order of size: sparrows, New Holland honeyeaters, willy wagtails, starlings, Indian mynas (grrrrr!), rainbow lorikeets, blackbirds, spotted doves, quail, wattlebirds, magpies, cockateels, galahs, crows and sulphur-crested cockatoos.  

One of the things I have learned about birds in the last year or so is that mimicry is a big thing and not just within the same species but across species. For example, I put in a bird bath in the early summer of 2019. It was a very hot summer that year but not a single bird looked at the birdbath for more than a week. One day, an enterprising blackbird landed a took a drink. Within ten minutes, all kinds of other birds were drinking and the bath has been a hit ever since. The same dynamic played out with my pear tree. Again, a blackbird was the initial culprit who learned that the fruit was mighty tasty. Another blackbird joined in. That was ok because there was heaps of fruit on the tree and I noticed that if I just threw a pear on the ground the blackbirds would bicker all day over it and the damage was mitigated. The real problems began when the New Holland honeyeaters saw what the blackbirds were doing and decided to copy. The wattlebirds then copied them and I had to take defensive action to save the remaining pears (fortunately it was mid autumn by that time and I had already eaten a majority of the fruit anyway).

As I posted about here, I have recently added another species of bird to the garden: chickens. It’s been fun to observe their behaviour. Like the other birds, copying is a big thing for chickens. A week ago I was eating a bunch of grapes off one of my backyard vines. I threw a few grapes to the chickens assuming they would eagerly devour them but they showed no interest. Then, just yesterday, one of the chickens tried a grape for herself off another vine. The others saw her and instantly rushed over to see what this new discovery was about. All of sudden, the chickens were mad about grapes. Fashion seems to be a thing in the bird world as much as the human.

Another thing that birds and humans share in common is a social hierarchy. The human one is far more complex and there are multiple hierarchies across different domains. Nevertheless, we also have the equivalent of a pecking order which is why the behaviour of one of my new chickens reminded me of an old story about the Greek philosopher Diogenes. But, before we get to that, let’s meet the chickens.

First up is the top hen, a black Australorp. She’s a beautiful bird with shiny black feathers who is noticeably larger than the others and doesn’t mind throwing her weight around especially when food comes into the equation. She’s especially hard on….

The number two chook: a blue Australorp. Blue is a moody bird who is clearly the smartest of the group (by contrast, the black Australorp seems quite dumb). What she receives from the top hen she dishes out to the next hen down the line:

A rhode island red. Also a very attractive and smart bird. She’s actually a little bit bigger than the blue Australorp but just doesn’t have the fire in the belly and backs out of any engagement.

Which leaves the fourth hen who, for reasons that will become clear in a moment, I have named Diogena.

A floppy comb is sometimes thought to indicate sickness but with Diogena I have a feeling it’s a fashion choice. A little bit punk rock.

Diogena is an Ancona breed. Originally, I had assumed Diogena was the bottom chicken in the pecking order. When I got the chickens home the first time, she seemed to integrate the worst. In fact, I was worried she was sick as she didn’t seem to eat and wasn’t socialising with the other chickens. But she slowly integrated with the group and began eating and everything settled into a nice rhythm. Diogena is clearly the smallest chicken of the group, another reason why I had assumed she was bottom rung on the ladder. Then something interesting happened.

I was giving the chickens some zucchini as a treat (they love zucchini and I don’t). As a good chicken owner, I try to apportion the treats geographically far enough apart that every chicken gets at least some. But as the treat gets devoured and supply runs short, inevitably the pecking order is asserted and the top chicken hoards whatever is left. The black Australorp ruthlessly enforces this rule at such times and on this occasion had successfully chased the blue Australorp and the Rhode Island Red away. Diogena, in her normal fashion, hadn’t contested the treat. She will eat one if thrown her way but otherwise stays out of the fray. However, on this occasion she decided to wander over to the Black Australorp and help herself to some zucchini. I watched on expecting her to get the same nice hard pecking the others had got but was amazed to see that not only did the Black Australorp not peck Diogena, she forfeited the zucchini to her. This got me thinking and I realised I had never seen Diogena either peck or be pecked. She seemed to be outside the pecking order.

Apart from food, the other main way the pecking order is enforced is over who gets which roosting position in the coop. Higher is better and, in my coop, closest to the wall on the higher roosting bars is the most coveted position. Once the hens had learned to use the roosting bars, inevitably it was the two Australorps on the upper bars and the other two below. This was the way it was for the first few weeks. Occasionally, the Rhode Island Red would get above her station and jump up top but the blue Australorp would kick her off down below where she belonged. Until the day in question, Diogena had done her usual thing of casually roosting at the bottom and avoiding any disagreements. But not this day. This day Diogena decided she was going to roost on the top bars. Not just that, but in the coveted wall position. I thought for sure that she would be booted back to her place but yet again, the black Australorp just ceded the ground and took up a position below.

Hang on. Who’s the boss here again?

It was at this point that the story of Diogenes the philosopher came to my mind. Diogenes is the best known member of the Cynic school of philosophy. The word cynic meant ‘dog-like’ in Ancient Greek and the Cynics, Diogenes in particular, were known for living on the streets or in the woods or wherever they pleased. The Cynic philosophy is a fascinating one and was a prelude to the Stoic philosophy. It eschews social convention and encourages people to live according to their own nature in whatever way they see fit. One of the most famous stories that encapsulates this is the one where Diogenes was lying in the sun and Alexander the Great, who had heard about the great philosopher, came to visit. He asked Diogenes if there was anything he could do for him and Diogenes replied “step to the side, you are blocking the sun.” It is said that Alexander later asserted that if he was not Alexander, the most powerful man on earth at the time, he would rather be Diogenes.

These stories might be apocryphal but they do reveal something very important about social hierarchies which is that the most ‘freedom’ (in a very general sense of the word) is found either at the top or at the bottom. Interestingly, it seems that Alexander knew that and respected Diogenes as an equal. I am probably massively anthropomorphising the situation, but I think the same dynamic is going on in my chicken coop right now. In any case, I am pleased to have Diogena – the Cynic Chicken – in my backyard.

“I’m sorry, ma’am. We’re gonna have to ask you to leave. This is a respectable roosting bar.”

A change of technology

Goodbye to a digital bird
Hello to a real bird

This week I deleted my Twitter account and introduced my new chickens to their just-finished chicken coop. These two events are seemingly unrelated. I didn’t intend for them to happen at the same time. In fact, before last week I didn’t even know I was going to delete my Twitter account. Nevertheless, they did happen almost simultaneously and I’ve had this idea in my mind the last few days that there’s something to this coincidence that might be relevant for the future. Twitter is a technology and so is a chicken coop. Could this change of technology be symbolic of the kind of future that is headed our way? Let’s speculate.

I’ll start with the technology I stopped using: Twitter. This year was the ten-year anniversary of my joining Twitter. I was prompted to sign up by colleagues at the job I was working in at the time. Twitter had been around for several years by that point. I had heard good things about it but hadn’t felt the need to join. But I was glad I did. I instantly came to like the platform. The challenge of trying to say something worthwhile in 140 characters appealed to me. But the main cool thing about Twitter was that it introduced you to random things you otherwise would never have been exposed to. It was possible to listen in on interesting conversations between experts in some field. It was quite common to get a hearty laugh out of Twitter and also to be exposed to something interesting or profound. Tweets featuring links to full length blog posts or new products were common. Famous people would drop interesting bits of information, often quite personal. In fact, most people seemed to treat Twitter with a disarming honesty that belied the completely public nature of the platform. You really got a sense of what people were thinking that seemed to be uncensored and unfiltered.

All came to an end spectacularly in the last few weeks with a mass censorship drive that included the President of the USA but the writing had been on the wall for some time. Trump had already broken Twitter. Around the time when he announced his run for the Presidency I had to unfollow a large of number of people whose tweets I had previously enjoyed because their entire Twitter feed had become an anti-Trump rant-fest. This only got worse when he became President. Of course, it was all part of the Trump show that he barged his way onto Twitter or the evening news or whatever and forced the people who despised him to bend to his will. As somebody with no real stake in US politics, I have to admit I found the Trump-on-Twitter show very entertaining. Watching the President of the US sack somebody, or threaten some other country with military action or trade tariffs or whatever live on social media was fun to watch. But it pretty much destroyed the platform. Trump did what he did best and sucked all the energy around himself. But that just meant all the energy came to be about politics and therefore became toxic energy.

Twitter was doing its best to destroy the platform too. The introduction of its new feed was just one example. Didn’t they know that the whole point of Twitter was to get news directly from individuals rather than through officially sanctioned channels? The cool thing about Twitter was to get unfiltered, non-propaganda type news. In fact, the real-time nature of Twitter meant that the news broke there well before those official channels. Often on Twitter you could get video or information directly from some dramatic event happening on the other side of the world at the time it was happening. An hour or two later, the official news channels would confirm what you had already seen with your own eyes. Twitter’s great power was to harness a global network of individuals and let them provide the content. But Twitter couldn’t help itself. It had to provide the ‘news’ and eventually it started shadow banning, censoring and then de-platforming the very people who provided the content. It’s not possible to govern a global social media network adequately via manual labor. I assume Twitter is doing a lot of the work with algorithms and machine learning. The result is opaque, subjective and unaccountable censorship. It’s a rather Kafkaesque way to run things. One day you wake up and your Twitter account is gone and nobody will tell you why or what you did wrong.

I’ll be surprised if Twitter still exists in ten years’ time. But, in any case, my Twitter journey has come to an end. What started as a technology that opened a lot of doors to new perspectives ended as a technology that explicitly closed down those perspectives.

So, it was goodbye to a global communication tool and hello to a backyard egg production tool. The chicken coop is the latest development in another journey I have been on that is now almost as long as my Twitter journey. I have documented it partly on this blog in the garden update sections and my posts on Living Design Process. I suppose you could call it my Green Wizard journey after the name of the book that inspired me to start it– John Michael Greer’s “The Green Wizard”. The Green Wizard ethic is about appropriate tech at the human scale so it’s appropriate that the chicken coop was a retrofit of the small shed on my property.

A blue Australorp about to step into the coop

From the photos above and below you can see some of the elements that went into the construction of the coop. The bench of the shed has become the upper story of the coop and that is where the chickens roost of a night time. The long plank of wood that forms that walkway to the upper story was repurposed from the shed itself. The step that leads to the outside run was also made from wood that was in the shed. The large plastic pots which are now hopefully going to become nesting boxes when the chickens get around to laying were things I had picked up at a junk store once upon a time. The gate at the entrance to the outdoor run was part of the birdcages that were on the property when I bought it. The chicken wire that can’t be seen in the photo but which is doing time as a fox deterrent on the back fence was also left from the previous owner. So, almost the entire chicken coop is re-purposed from stuff lying around. All that stuff is now part of a piece of technology that will provide me with eggs for the kitchen, chicken manure for the garden and the quirky company of some new feathered friends.

I remember reading once that in terms of energy to transport/energy in the food, eggs were one of the least efficient things you can buy at the supermarket. That is, the amount of energy to transport eggs was very high relative to the energy in the eggs themselves. So, having backyard chickens is a good thing in terms of saving resources. The eggs produced by happy chickens in the backyard are of superior quality to what you can buy at the supermarket and, let’s be honest, the lives of the chickens are just better. Even the free range chooks in the commercial facilities are not exactly living well. So, there’s everything to like about having chickens in the backyard.

A chicken coop is a localised, decentralised and low energy technology. The inputs are the chicken feed and the straw bedding. These require a drive to the pet shop about once every few months. There’s nothing particularly glamorous about maintaining a chicken coop. Pretty sure nobody’s putting photos on Instagram showing them cleaning chicken poop off the roosting bars. But I have a feeling chicken coops are going to be round long after the Instagrams and Twitters of the world have gone the way of the dodo.

If I was a betting man, I would bet that my chicken coop will still be there in ten years and Twitter won’t. If this blog is still going at the time, I’ll be sure to make a post and check my prediction.